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Austria's Nazi loot on show

Museum for Applied Arts (MAK) exhibit
Works of art are now being returned to their original owners or their heirs

By Bethany Bell
BBC News, Vienna

Among the paintings and porcelain on display at the exhibition, Recollecting: Looted Art and Restitution, at Vienna's Museum for Applied Arts (MAK), is a cardboard box.

Filled with photographs, a set of children's playing cards and tiny wooden doll's house furniture, it was prepared by a Viennese Jewish couple, Franz and Anna Bial, to send to their daughter Lilly.

Lilly had escaped to Britain in 1939 on a "Kindertransport", a scheme to rescue Jewish children from Nazi persecution.

Mr and Mrs Bial were deported to Maly Trostinec, a Nazi death camp near Minsk, in 1942, where they were murdered.

It was not until 2004 that the box of memories reached Lilly.

Commission

This exhibition tells the story of looted objects belonging to the Bials and 16 other families and individuals.

Museum for Applied Arts (MAK) exhibit
I would say, to put it politely, that Austria has a very special relationship to its own very ugly history
Peter Noever, Artistic director, Museum for Applied Arts (MAK)

It traces their history from the time they were stolen to when they were eventually returned to the original owners or their heirs.

And it explores why it has often taken decades for items to be returned.

At the end of World War II in 1945, there was no automatic restitution of property in Austria.

Former owners had to put forward their own claims. Legal proceedings were often lengthy and costly.

Many stolen items found their way into Austrian museums, including the MAK.

It was not until 1998 that the Austrian ministry of culture set up a commission to investigate all works of art acquired between 1938 and 1945 and to identify stolen property.

Works of art not properly obtained are now being returned to their original owners or their heirs.

Looting

Peter Noever, the artistic director of MAK, says for too long Austrians have been unwilling to confront their past.

Official Austria, he said, too often hid behind bureaucracy.

"I would say, to put it politely, that Austria has a very special relationship to its own very ugly history," he says.

"It took much, much too long and whatever we are doing now comes too late, because most people are not alive anymore."

1931 Fiat 522C
When I saw a photo of the car, I imagined my grandparents in it
Silvia, granddaughter of Rosa and Moritz Glueckselig

The items on display show the sheer scale of Nazi looting - from Old Master paintings like the Madonna with Child in a Landscape by Lucas Cranach from 1518, to a collection of autograph books, and a car.

The 1931 Fiat 522C belonged to Rosa and Moritz Glueckselig, who owned a delicatessen in Vienna.

After Austria was annexed by Germany in 1938, Moritz was interned in the concentration camps of Dachau and Buchenwald.

In 1939, he and his family managed to flee to South America.

The car was seized by Nazi party stormtroopers, and sold to the national park service at Vienna's Schoenbrunn Palace. In 1952, it was given to the Technisches Museum in Vienna.

Then in 2008, it was finally given back to Mr and Mrs Glueckselig's son, who is now 86 years old. The Technisches Museum has now bought the car back from him.

The exhibition quotes the reaction of the Glueckseligs' granddaughter, Silvia: "When I saw a photo of the car, I imagined my grandparents in it. I was happy to have found something from my family and my roots."

Perpetrators

Mr Noever says this exhibition is about the personal significance of restituted objects.

It is easy to say this is just a part of history and not something we have to deal with - but we do have to deal with it
Gina, visitor

"The exhibition deals with memory," he says. "It is not the issue if it is a valuable art piece or a button. It has something to do with very personal identity."

But while there is a great deal of detail about the victims of Nazi looting, including video interviews with owners and their heirs, there is little information about the individuals who were responsible for stealing, looting and keeping their property.

Captions in the exhibition refer to "the Gestapo", "the authorities", or to institutions.

Gina, a Viennese actress visiting the exhibit, said she wanted to know more.

"You see the victims but not enough about the perpetrators. Who were the people who took these things?" she asked.

"It is easy to say this is just a part of history and not something we have to deal with - but we do have to deal with it."

'Complex situation'

Mr Noever says this exhibition is only a step.

Madonna with Child in a Landscape by Lucas Cranach
The items on display at the museum show the sheer scale of Nazi looting

"More needs to be done. This exhibition is just a small part of a very complex situation," he adds.

"I'm not even sure we could have had an exhibit like this 20 years ago."

And there are other unanswered questions.

On display is a delicate silver chess set from Prague, dating from 1817.

It has been part of MAK's own collection since 1942, purchased from a local auction house.

Museum researchers have now identified it as looted property, but so far no heirs have been found.

It is one of many items whose history is murky, and which may still have an interesting future.

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